Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dropping the Baby

Today, the family spent most of the afternoon together at the playground. We enjoyed the late spring sunshine, Spot met a little girl with a lollipop, and mom and dad schmoozed with other parents, some known, some unknown. Back home, we hung out upstairs and got Spot ready for bed.

All together, in the course of the afternoon, my wife dropped the baby twice.

I should clarify: Spot's mom didn't really "drop" the baby, as you would "drop" a ball. She just "dropped the ball," as it were, in a way that exposed Spot to some of the more powerful forces of nature. Like gravity.

But before I get to gravity, I should mention convection. In terms of fluid dynamics, it's what makes Chicago the windy city, and the atmospheric turbulence of our continental geography is only aggravated by the presence of irregularly-spaced tall buildings. In this kind of environment, it's easy for an untethered stroller to be transformed into a four-masted schooner by a sudden gust.

This is what happened when Spot's mom decided to duck into a new popcorn store down the block. She rolled Spot up in front of the display window, full of caramel and buttered popcorn, and went in. The dog and I colonized a nearby parking meter. I noticed she hadn't put on the stroller brakes.

It took about 10 seconds for the stroller to start moving eastward along the sidewalk, more or less in the direction of Lake Michigan, rolling about 6 feet before Spot's mom reemerged. She saw it blowing away, charting a straight course for America's longest lake, and managed to grab it. I mentioned the thing about stroller brakes and schooners.

The gravity incident came much later, long after the popcorn store and the girl with the lollipop, who I have since convinced myself will be Spot's first great romance. I turned Spot over to Mom for the evening wind-down, as I do every night. A few moments later, Spot launched himself off the bed, just when Spot's mom wasn't looking, and accomplished a resounding face-plant on the carpet floor.

Wailing ensued. "That was my fault," said Spot's Mom, as the comforting began. "Yeah, it was," I agreed. I decided at that moment that, due to her poor parenting skills, I could no longer leave my wife alone and unsupervised with Spot.

The irony of this story is that, until today, Spot's Mom probably thought the same thing about me. In fact, the sum total of today's Spot damage probably puts her about even with Dad in our 16 months of reverse-traditional parenting. It was only a month ago, after all, that I gave my son a gratuitous fat lip, and a sizable abrasion across his nose, all of which he was able to proudly display, fresh and swollen, on his first day of toddler playgroup an hour later. And this because I hadn't properly balanced Spot in his backpack as I leaned him against a tree. Stuck in Dad's contraption, he fell face-forward, like a bookcase in an earthquake.

So who's the worse parent, Mom or Dad? Believe it or not, that's a question I hardly ever ask myself, because it's clear there is no answer. Despite the statistically unusual cluster of Mom's lapses today, I still have the deepest confidence in her ability to take care of Spot. We all drop the ball once in a while. Occasionally, we drop it a few times in a row.

But what did come home to me was the fact that, at the end of many days, in which the likelihood of many such mishaps presents itself, many parents will successfully prevent a lot of them from ever happening. Inevitably, however, there will be a few that get past the safety net. With another parent around -- or just another caring body -- that person may be able to spot the mishap before it happens, intervene as it's happening, or catch it before it gets too bad. And even if that other person can't do any of the above, they can stick around to help make it better.

At the very least, I feel better knowing I have some solid backup for the times when, despite all my best efforts, I drop the baby.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Would You Marry This Man?

Here's a nice post from the blog, "Knocked Up (and in Law School)" about the benefits of co-parenting:

I have heard many women say that a father could just never love a child the way a mother does, and can't take care of them the way a mother does either. I don't believe that's true at all, and I think it's disrespectful to all the men who are spectacular parents. And I want to know why no one tries to make men feel guilty because they work outside the home? That's the real question. Why does Law School Mom state that it matters whether she or a nanny takes her kids to school, but makes no mention of her husband in that scenario? Why do we as mothers put all of the guilt on ourselves (and on other women) instead of equally between both parents? Why is his career important, not to be inconvenienced by taking care of children, but hers isn't? Why is she a bad mother for working, but he's a good father for providing for his family? These double-standards are harmful for all parents, and perhaps the work environment for all parents, not just women, would improve if society expected men to take a more active role in all aspects of parenting, instead of viewing it as an abomination. Just because I'm the one with the uterus doesn't mean all of the responsibilities of child-rearing fall on me. Having full responsibility ends at delivery.

To Husband and I, co-parenting means both of us being equally responsible for the care of our child. When Cora was born, Husband took a nine week paternity leave to take care of her. When I started back to school full time four weeks after she was born, he got up with her during the night, and cared for her during the times I was in class. I don't feel like I'm a bad mother and not bonding with my child because my husband does an equal share of the parenting, and sometimes even more than half. Since he went back to work, I'm on my own three nights a week. He takes over when he gets home from work in the morning and lets me get a little more sleep. On the days he doesn't work, he takes care of Cora during the day while I'm either in class or at work, and gets up with her at night if she wakes up. He takes her to all of her doctor's appointments, whereas I handle all the bill paying/fighting with Evil Health Insurance Company and Incompetent Medical Billing Agencies. We divide the tasks that way because those are our areas of expertise, and because that's what our schedules allow, not because any gender role dictates as such.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Dad Jeans Problem

One of two things has happened since I bought my last pair of jeans a few years ago.

Either a) I have experienced a late-onset growth spurt, in which an elongation of my lower spine has increased the distance between my crotch and waist, making it impossible to insert myself into a pair of men's jeans without damaging my genitalia, or b) the corporate couturiers at GAP have decided that I, almost-40-full-time-father-of-one, need to wear my jeans about an inch below the crack of my ass.

And so a quiet revolution has transpired: I've given up jeans. More than that: I've passionately rejected them. They can go to hell. I've switched entirely to chinos. It's not a perfect solution, but it's no longer the anatomical crisis it was shaping up to be. And it most certainly marks the end of a long, denim-clad era.

It wasn't an easy process. At the end of it, I basically gave the finger to the GAP-J.Crew-Express-Levis-Diesel global conglomerate dedicated to making men look like this:

Now, one of the privileges of youth is to freely choose to look like a fool, but not really know it; one of the privileges of maturity is to know that young people look like fools, several decades before they figure it out for themselves, as they inevitably will when they consult their yearbooks at future high-school reunions.

But to stick to my point: it seems to me that there is a dad jeans problem. It arises when you reach that fork in the road between low-rider/girl jeans, or boxy jeans with the capacious fly that zips up to your navel. I didn't like the choices, so I opted out of the game.

This is interesting only because it allows me to challenge the notion of mommy particularism. What is mommy particularism? It's the idea that, to paraphrase my wife, there is a certain unspoken social threshold with moms beyond which men (or dads) just can't pass, because they don't get certain things.

"So there's an analogy to the problem of moms and mom jeans," I propose, thinking this might help close the phenomenological gulf between motherhood and fatherhood.

"There's no analogy. You don't want to look like the guy in the picture. You're happy with your chinos. The mom doesn't want to wear mom jeans because it means she's not sexy anymore."

"But the common problem," I reply as our dialectic unfolds, "is that neither the mom nor the dad can find jeans that fit once they hit parenthood. So their fashion changes and it's a rite of passage. They're squeezed out of one style and can't stand the prospect of fitting into another."

She's still not convinced. I could have gone to L.L. Bean, I remind her. I could have walked into Eddie Bauer and come out looking like George Costanza. I could have gone for the full-comfort, baggy crotch in powder blue. Part of me still wants to. Her friends would be pulling her over and asking, "What happened?" and she would then understand the problem of dad jeans.

The controversy was settled the other day with a late-morning trip to "the mall," where Spot's mom saw for herself the reality of the dad jeans problem.

But it's not really the dad jeans problem I care about, since I've found my "third way", my chinos. What I care about is throwing another bridge between the allegedly separate spheres of mothers and fathers, comfortable in their mommy ghettos and daddy ghettos, talking about things that only authentic members of each ghetto can understand.

But the mom jeans-dad jeans problem can't be segregated.

The issue is not the jeans problem in and of itself. The jeans problem clearly transcends gender lines. The issue is who we decide we're going to discuss the problem with.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Baby Bonding

The Baby Bonding Book for Dads takes dads step by step through a child's developmental stages and suggests ways for them to bond with their children at each one. Written by husband-and-wife team James di Properzio and Jennifer Margulis, with photos (three at left) by Christopher Briscoe, this new book reminded me (once again) how much fatherhood has changed over the past century.

It's easy to take the changes for granted, and many people do. A century ago--a quarter-century ago, even--an ideological concrete barrier with barbed wire on top divided fathers from infants and toddlers. In real life, the wall was breached every day. Fathers have always cared for children. But the barrier I'm talking about was was real and it did shape men's caregiving behavior.

Today, that barrier is dissolving. When The Baby Bonding Book for Dads urges the new father to "take off your shirt, pick your baby up in just his diaper, and hold him," the authors are tapping a sensual dimension of fatherhood that was once taboo. This book very much assumes involved fatherhood is the healthy norm, and that's nothing but good.

This slim little book is designed to be a gift book and it is, essentially, a pep talk for new and almost-new fathers. Most of the dads reading this blog entry will never read The Baby Bonding Book themselves. But they might buy it for a baby shower, and I think they should. Remember how ignorant you were, before your child was born? We as parents know that nothing really prepares you for the experience of becoming a parent (how often have those cliched words been uttered?) but it only helps when almost-dads get tools like The Baby Bonding Book that help them to imagine themselves as fathers.

My one serious complaint about The Baby Bonding Book is that its pictures do not depict fathers of color in any substantial way. There is one photo of a visibly African-American hand holding a baby foot, and two pictures of African-American babies (one of whom is alone and the other is being held by a white father, which is interesting), and one dad who may or may not be Asian, I couldn't tell for sure. But overall the book portrays fatherhood as strictly a Euro-American affair.

I don't write this to self-righteously condemn the authors and photographer. I'm guilty of my own biases and I get called on them from time to time. Some will accuse me of just being politically correct for raising this point. To which I say: Sticks and stones, etc. We live in a multiracial America; many of us are part of multiracial families. Hell, the next President is (I hope) going to be biracial. The quicker we all start thinking multiracially, the better. It's a practical matter, and a moral one. And I think The Baby Bonding Book for Dads would have only benefited from embracing that perspective.

Otherwise, I recommend it as a gift for new dads. And you can buy it here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Real Boy Crisis II

A follow-up from the New York Times on yesterday's post. Is a college degree overrated? asks David Leonardt. His answer is worth quoting at length:

There has been an enormous natural experiment on precisely this subject over the last few decades. In the experiment, one big group of Americans has become vastly more educated, while another group has not. The two have created an excellent case study.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s refer to the first group as “women” and the second as “men.”

From the founding of the country’s first (all-male) colleges in the 17th century until just a few decades ago, men received far more education than women. But the two sexes have now switched places in a remarkably short time.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, about one out of every three young men got a bachelor’s degree. In the years that followed, the share fell somewhat, both because Vietnam War draft deferrals were no longer an issue and because college became more expensive. In the 1980s and 1990s, the share rose again.

But the shifts have been fairly small. For the last four decades, somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of men have graduated from a four-year college by the time they turned 35 years old.

The story is quite different for women. In the 1960s, only 25 percent received a college degree. Among today’s young women almost 40 percent will end up with one. At one commencement ceremony after another this month — be it at Boston College, San Francisco State University or Colby College — women in caps and gowns outnumber men.

The relevant question is how much of a return women have gotten on their education. And the answer isn’t especially subtle. The return has been enormous.

Armed with college degrees, large numbers of women have entered fields once dominated by men. Nearly half of new doctors today are women, up from just 1 of every 10 in the early 1970s. In all, the average inflation-adjusted weekly pay of women has jumped 26 percent since 1980.

And men? Their pay has increased about as much as their college graduation rate — it’s up just 1 percent since 1980.

Education obviously isn’t the only reason. Gender discrimination has become less prevalent in recent decades, and today’s female college graduates are less likely than their mothers and grandmothers to choose modest-paying jobs, like teaching. The decline of manufacturing jobs, meanwhile, has disproportionately hurt men. But research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn of Cornell suggests that, over the past two decades, education played the biggest role in narrowing the pay gap.

There are two statistics that I think do a particularly good job of capturing this point. The first shows that the gap between the pay of men and women with college degrees hasn’t budged over the last 15 years. Full-time female workers with a bachelor’s degree made 75 percent as much as their male counterparts in 1992 — and 75 percent as much in 2007.

Women still face discrimination, after all, and they’re still more likely than men to become teachers. More women also choose jobs that trade some pay for flexibility and reasonable hours. (Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing or neither needs to be a subject for another day.)

Yet even though the pay gap among college graduates hasn’t changed, the overall pay gap between men and women has continued to close in the last 15 years. That’s because so many more women have become college graduates and earned the pay premium that a degree really does bring. Across the whole work force, full-time women made 79 percent as much as full-time men last year, up from 75 percent in 1992.

To put it another way, women would have made almost no progress in narrowing the gender pay gap over this period if they hadn’t been so thoroughly trouncing men in the classroom.

And it’s not as if women’s gains have come at the expense of men. By becoming more educated — and able to do more productive, higher-wage jobs — women have increased the size of the economic pie. The economic growth in a country like South Korea, which has made much more educational progress than the United States, clearly demonstrates this. “If you look across countries,” says Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, “education is the strongest predictor for how quickly the pie grows.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Real Boy Crisis

Two, seemingly contradictory, articles:

1) The New York Times reports:

The American Association of University Women, whose 1992 report on how girls are shortchanged in the classroom caused a national debate over gender equity, has turned its attention to debunking the idea of a “boys’ crisis.”

“Girls’ gains have not come at boys’ expense,” says a new report by the group, to be released on Tuesday in Washington.

Echoing research released two years ago by the American Council on Education and other groups, the report says that while girls have for years graduated from high school and college at a higher rate than boys, the largest disparities in educational achievement are not between boys and girls, but between those of different races, ethnicities and income levels...

The report points out that a greater proportion of men and women than ever before are graduating from high school and earning college degrees. But, it says, “perhaps the most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys’ crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace.”

2) Then I read this piece in Business Week:

They eat from the same dishes and sleep in the same beds, but they seem to be operating in two different economies. From last November through this April, American women aged 20 and up gained nearly 300,000 jobs, according to the household survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, American men lost nearly 700,000 jobs. You might even say American men are in recession, and American women are not.

What's going on? Simply put, men have the misfortune of being concentrated in the two sectors that are doing the worst — manufacturing and construction. Women are concentrated in sectors that are still growing, such as education and health care.

This situation is hardly good news for women, though. While they're getting more jobs, their pay is stagnant. Also, most share households—and bills—with the men who are losing jobs. And the "female" economy can't stay strong for long if the "male" economy weakens too much.

My comment: This has been going on for decades--over a century, in fact. Women made up only 2.5 percent of the clerical workforce in 1870. But by 1930, women were 52.5 percent of all clerical workers. Women's education and employment jumped in every decade of the twentieth century, including in the 1950s. These trends continued right up through the 1990s and they continue today.

In many respects, the genders traveled through the twentieth century on separate tracks—but by the end of the century women were catching up, economically, socially, and politically. “It was inevitable that women would rise out of property status,” writes novelist and social critic Jane Smiley. “Capitalism wants every consumer, and ultimately distinctions among consumers according to gender, age, geographical location or ethnic background must break down as the market extends itself.”

Thus women’s accomplishments didn’t come at men’s expense. Women responded more quickly and nimbly to social and economic change and so they were able to benefit from the evolution of capitalism from industrialism to post-industrialism.

Meanwhile, men who were too invested in the status quo fell behind. Feminism did not cause these social and economic changes, but by preaching equality between genders, it tried to teach women and men how to live with them. Feminism also provided role models that helped girls and women adapt to new realities.

Now, I think, men have to do the same for boys, moving from rigid notions of manhood as breadwinning and domination to something more flexible and cooperative, from one economic paradigm to the next. It's that lack of new role models that constitutes the real boy crisis.

Holy Shit

The new head of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, is an old buddy of mine. We've lost touch in recent years, but Ben and I knew each other through our work supporting independent newspapers and magazines--he was the director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and I was deputy director of the Independent Press Association. Last we lunched, about two years ago, he was president of Rosenberg Foundation and expecting his first child. Time flies.

What does this have to do with topics we normally cover at Daddy Dialectic? Nothing, yet. I'm just startled.

Monday, May 19, 2008

This is what love looks like

It's Thursday and the news alert pops into my email: California Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage. I think, "I'll have to blog on that.” That afternoon I meet with a colleague. He’s a gay dad who has raised two children (now grown) with his partner of many years, and he’s overjoyed. I don’t find the time to write a blog entry.

I get home and my wife calls: She and my son are stranded at a bus stop—the twenty-four bus, she says, is being routed around the Castro because of spontaneous street partying, but a friend is coming to pick them up.

I can’t resist: I jump on my bike and ride down Castro and walk through the gathering throng. People are dancing and talking in small circles on the street, and I see many couples wander through crowd with dazed looks on their faces: the mood somehow combines wary happiness with giddy disbelief. Cops stand at barricades, but they look relaxed and they laugh and joke with the people streaming into the Castro. A DJ sets up at the intersection of Castro and Market.

When I get home, my family is there. That night, it’s warm enough so that you can leave your house without a coat. This happens maybe five or six nights a year in the usually very cool and foggy city of San Francisco, and so I drag the mattress out onto our deck and the three of us go to bed outside.

I look up at the clear sky and the big dipper is directly overhead. The tree in our yard rustles in the breeze. The street party at the bottom of the hill is now in full swing, and we drift asleep to laughter and the thump-thump-thump of electronic dance music. Liko throws an arm over my chest and snuggles into my neck.

Friday, another hot day, I get a text message from our friends Jessica, Jackie, and their little boy Ezra: Do we want to have dinner that night? We meet at Savor and get a table on the patio, and two other families join us.

Jessica orders wine. We want to celebrate, she says.

Why? I ask.

We’re getting married, says Jessica, throwing her arm around Jackie.

It hadn’t even occurred to me: our friends can now get married.

A feeling of happiness sweeps through my body; I feel a smile pop onto my face. It’s a rare kind of happiness I’m feeling, the kind that has nothing to do with me. I happy for Jackie, Jessica, and Ezra, genuinely happy for them, through them.

Why? I’ve never been a great friend of marriage. I’ve always seen it as optional. But I see how much it means to my friends: They never expected it, never dreamed of it, but here it is, marriage. They are silly with plans: they quiz the straight couples on venues, clothes, vows, invitations, costs, the whole crazy thing. Mark volunteers to get the food; Karen says she’ll design invitations. Their marriage becomes one more thread that ties our little community together.

Now I am thinking of the California Supreme Court judges who wrote the decision. Their working lives consist of books, papers, arguments, precedents, a place apart from our small, private lives. Did they know this one decision would create such happiness and improve so many lives? Could they have imagined it? And do we as a society have the courage to embrace the happiness they helped create?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Contemplating Disaster

As soon as I heard there had been an earthquake in central China, I emailed my dad, who on May 12 was in the ancient capital city of Xian. It's 400 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake in nearby Sichuan Province. They said the shock had been felt as far away as Beijing and Bangkok.

"It was a big one," he wrote back, "but we're ok." I was relieved.

In a follow-up email a day later, he shared a few more details. The buildings had swayed. Some tiles fell off the roofs of nearby buildings. All the shops had closed, and everyone came into the streets. Around the city, parents congregated outside the schools, all of which were still standing, to find their children.

Then, for the most part, life in Xian went on.

So, too, did life in Chicago. My family was intact, and my worries abated. I went upstairs, got Spot dressed, and went out to walk the dogs. The weather was beautiful, Spot enjoyed running around the playground and sitting on my lap as we went down the slide. He ate his favorite lunch of rice and tofu and complained loudly as I strapped him back into his stroller.

His life is very simple now, and because so much of my life is fit to meld with his, my life is simple, too. So it is, I imagine, for many parents everywhere, who can think of things and places and events beyond the horizon only briefly or occasionally, if at all, during the first years of their children's lives.

Yet images from the far corners of the world have the strange effect of penetrating the most distracted consciousness, of making the faraway seem next door, or of making someone else's life feel like my business; of making the moral violation of someone I've never met the source of my personal indignation, and the misfortune of others the source of my impotent frustration.

As the week progressed I learned more about the schools collapsing in Sichuan, one story after another, the numbers adding up and nowhere near the final tally, with hundreds and hundreds of children still inside. Then came the pictures, the few fortunate rescues, the many more grieving parents, and then still more parents facing the news that no parent wants to hear. I can't bring myself to post some of the pictures I've come across, of rescuers digging through the rubble of a school and coming across catacombs of children.

I can't shake these images. There have been plenty of natural disasters in my lifetime, most of them covered in the media, but not as heavily: earthquakes in Turkey and Iran, volcanic eruptions and mudslides in Central America, famines in Africa, floods around the world, many of these with higher final death tolls than what we are witnessing right now in Asia. Yet few of them kept me from sleeping at night.

But I was not the parent of a 16-month old boy then. The parent of an only child, like so many parents in China. Now, I am a father, and these images of the schools are nearly unbearable to behold. I just can't shake them.

At first I didn't dwell, as I have when I've worried about my own death, about the last minutes of these children's lives. Maybe the identification was there someplace, overwhelmed by the egoism that joined with my empathy for the parents, who sat by the rubble with their kid's backpacks full of fresh clothes, waiting for them to come home from school.

My ailing mother-in-law helped shake me out of that empathetic egoism last night. I held Spot up to the window after dinner, 10 floors above the lake, to watch the traffic and the waves. "Imagine," she said in her deteriorating English, "a child not much older than him, maybe one who can say a few words, like Mama come. But no one comes."

That feat of emotional imagination was something that I had never performed. It's so basic, I felt ashamed it hadn't come before. It took prompting from someone who has seen much more of life than I have. But it worked. And I have a feeling that once you've had a realization like that, it never leaves you.

Unfortunately, the experience of this new dimension of empathy doesn't make it easier to sleep at night. To the contrary. And it doesn't change anything in Sichuan Province.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Are moms responsible?

Evolution of a Dad writes:

I've mentioned Jessica DeGroot from The Third Path Institute in these annals before and here I am doing so once again... We had been discussing some of the factors that help dads get more involved with their families. Here's #1 on her list:

"I think the number one reason men in professional jobs get more involved with family is because of the mother's attitude - for some reason she feels very strongly about having the dad involved."

Jessica's assessment seems to cut to the core of the issue. If moms really want dads to get more involved with the family then they have to be not only willing to give up some of the power in their 'separate sphere' of the home, but they must expect that involvement. If this expectation isn't there then the likelihood, especially given the current attitude of most companies, is that most dads will fall back into the traditional role of detached breadwinner.

This is a very controversial idea in many circlesso controversial, that I am taking the unusual step (for a blog entry!) of providing endnotes citing research in order to support the case I'm about to make. When some people hear that "the mother's attitude" plays a big role in determining father involvement, they think it means that we are “blaming the victim”—that is, blaming mothers for the disproportionate share of childrearing that they do.

But this assumes that most mothers see childcare primarily as a burden or see themselves as victims. In fact, they tend to see mothering as valuable and desirable and intrinsic to their identity,[i] though it goes without saying that childcare can indeed be a heavy weight to carry alone. Many studies have shown that relationship satisfaction falls catastrophically when the father doesn’t hold up his end,[ii] as well it should.

That said, a great deal of empirical research shows that the gender ideology of the mother matters quite a bit in shaping a father’s caregiving activities, and that ideology often stereotypes fathers as incompetent caregivers. By and large in our culture today, mothers are still the “gatekeepers”—that is, they control access to, and management of, children. They let men in and they can keep men out. This finding doesn’t apply to every couple, of course—it didn’t come up as a significant issue for any of the couples I interviewed for my book, and it doesn’t apply to my own family—but gatekeeping is extensively documented and replicated in the research literature.[iii]

Of course, gatekeeping behavior is not evenly distributed throughout womankind; it depends heavily on cultural values and beliefs about the bodies of mother and fathers. “If the mother believes that moms are more biologically suited for rearing children, gatekeeping goes up,” says Ross Parke, the University of California, Riverside, psychologist and pioneering parenthood researcher.

Insight about the relationship between gender stereotyping and gatekeeping behavior feeds into a tremendous amount of research about the social impact of how gender is framed.

For example, one
University of British Columbia study in 2006 found that telling women that their gender will affect their individual math achievement causes their test scores to go down. “The findings suggest that people tend to accept genetic explanations as if they’re more powerful or irrevocable, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies,” says investigator Steven Heine, echoing Parke.

This phenomenon—which psychologist Claude Steele and colleagues call “stereotype threat”
has been widely duplicated in other lab experiments, and has been found to affect racial minorities as well.

“Lift this stereotype threat, and group differences in performance disappear,” says University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton.[iv] “Whether one is an older person learning how to operate a computer, a woman learning a new scientific procedure, or a father learning to feed a baby, negative stereotypes can hurt performance in ways that seem to confirm these very stereotypes.”

Mendoza-Denton’s own research has shown that “notions about innate ability don’t just hinder the performance of negatively stereotyped groups—it’s worse than that. They actually boost the performance of positively stereotyped groups.”

So while belief that abilities are determined by biological identity can increase anxiety among negatively stereotyped groups, Mendoza-Denton argues “it reduces anxiety among positively stereotyped groups by reassuring them that their group membership guarantees high ability. So stereotypic views of fixed ability not only perpetuate achievement gaps—they exacerbate them.”

In his 2003 book The Essential Difference, psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen makes a very convincing case that empathizing defines what he chooses to call “the female brain” and systemizing defines “the male brain.” But Baron-Cohen cautions against misapplying his argument: He is not talking about all men and all women, “just about the average female, compared to the average male.”

However, research by Mendoza-Denton and others reveals that Baron-Cohen’s argument faces a real problem: His samples are spoiled by deeply held stereotypes, positive and negative, that affect performance—not only stereotypes, but differences in power between groups that are related to differences in education, income, and wealth. Does that mean there are no differences between men and women? No. But we are a long, long, long way from having an accurate picture of the roots of those differences.

Neither Mendoza-Denton nor I know of a study that specifically tests for stereotype threat against stay-at-home dads, but, based on interviews with the dads themselves, there can be little question that affects men’s caregiving behavior.

“Fathers face the stereotype of being cavemen when it comes to children,” says Mendoza-Denton. “The problem for dads is that given negative stereotypes, whichever strategy they choose is likely to be more easily labeled as wrong precisely because it is dad is doing it, and those who disagree with the strategy may feel more justified expressing disapproval because of dad’s gender.”

We are accustomed—much too accustomed—to thinking of women as the victims, but when it comes to taking care of children, it is men who are entering a female domain and confronting stereotypes that can hinder them in sneaky ways. There is obviously something to be gained from positively stereotyping women as great caregivers—but in the twenty-first century, is there anything to be gained by stereotyping fathers as incompetent caregivers?

The good news is that this is changing in a big way--the culture of parenthood is shifting so that more and more mothers are validating male caregiving and welcoming them into the club. Peggy O'Mara, editor of Mothering magazine, has a quietly courageous editorial (well worth a read) in the current issue that acknowledges this shift and how it is affecting the magazine's editorial direction:

There is a new generation of fathers who are not second-class parents to their wives. They are fully present and know what to do. Just like mothers, they have to figure things out for themselves and learn from their mistakes, but more of them than ever are willing to show up and get involved.

In my generation there were only a few such daddies, and in my mother's, even fewer. When my husband and I led workshops at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in the early 1980s, the fathers would sometimes look as if they'd been dragged to the event by their wives. By the '90s, they were attending on their own accord, and in this new century, daddies have found their voices.

This is not to say that, all along, fathers have not been loving and supportive. Of course they have—but their role was usually more narrowly defined than it is now. Fathers of this new generation want to be more actively involved in the life of the home and the care of their children. Many are primary caretakers, and proud of that role.

I began to understand what I'd been missing... when I spoke with another young father, Paul Newman, at the recent Natural Products Expo West. He told me a story about a mothers' group that his wife belongs to. One night, she couldn't attend, and suggested that he go in her stead. He was the only dad at the meeting, and he told the mothers how hard it was for him to go to work every day and leave his children, and how much he missed them. We both got teary-eyed as we spoke, and wondered that so much of a father's experience is unarticulated in our culture.

As I listened to Paul's story, it occurred to me that this was an intimate conversation. While women have a habit and history of gathering to talk about their experiences, these kinds of conversations are not their exclusive domain. And even though its name suggests otherwise, Mothering really is an intimate conversation among mothers and fathers. (Our readers' surveys indicate that fathers read the magazine as much as mothers do.) This intimate conversation is defined not by gender, but by commonality of experience and depth of inquiry.

I told Paul that I was coming to realize how much we unintentionally glorify the image of "woman alone" in the magazine. I personally am inspired by the image of the Madonna, and have pictures and statues of her all over the Mothering office. Now, however, it occurred to me that nearly all of those pictures and statues depict a woman alone with her baby. Aside from a sculpture of mother, father, and baby on my desk, most of the other artwork in the office begs the question: "Where's Joseph?" No wonder we think we're superwomen.

So where does that leave us? In transition. Changes in motherhood (e.g., women going to work) triggered changes in fatherhood (e.g., more caregiving) which are now triggering more changes in motherhood. Mothering magazine is retooling editorially to show fathers as integral to parenting--they are adding blogs, including one I'll be writing for them called "Fathering," as well as new departments, articles, and images that include dads. This reflects a wider change in our culture, one that I welcome. The day is coming when mothers and fathers can co-parent on an equal basis, and no parent has to ask the other one for permission to hold a child.

[i] “Doing family work is a way to validate a mothering identity externally as it is the primary source of self-esteem and satisfaction for many women,” but that “does not automatically mean that they are inhibiting more collaborative arrangements of family work.” Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins, “Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, (1999): 204. For many insightful personal observations about mothering as a source of identity and self-worth, see Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire (New York, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2004), passim.

[ii] For an overview of this research, see Scott Coltrane, “What About Fathers?” American Prospect, March 2007, 20-22.

[iii] See the following studies for examples: Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins, “Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 199-212; Naomi Gerstel and Sally K. Gallagher, “Male Caregiving,” Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 2001): 197-217. For observations and insights into the relationship between stay-at-home fatherhood and maternal gatekeeping, see Andrea Doucet, Do Men Mother? (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 229-232. Like me, Doucet also finds that mothers in reverse-traditional families did not appear to exhibit gatekeeping behaviors, although she found that quality of housework remains “a sensitive issue.”

[iv] The statements from Parke and Mendoza-Denton are taken from interviews with me.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Let's Play!

The new issue of Greater Good magazine (which I help edit) focuses on play:

Can We Play?
Play is essential to positive human development, but kids are playing less and less, says psychologist David Elkind. What can we do to build a new culture of play?
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Games Animals Play
Animal play is serious business, say scientists Lee Alan Dugatkin and Sarina Rodrigues.
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Confessions of an Anxious Parent
Are today’s parents afraid to let their kids play? Jill Suttie tries to strike a balance between safety, freedom, and success.
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The Wild Ones
Adults have always tried to control children’s play. But Howard P. Chudacoff argues that the kids will always win.
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Playing the Blame Game
Video games stand accused of causing obesity, violence, and lousy grades. But new research paints a surprisingly complicated picture, reports Jeremy Adam Smith.
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With Friends Like These...
Marjorie Taylor and Alison B. Shawber explain what imaginary friends can reveal about the kids who create them.
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You’re It!
Play isn’t just for kids, reports Karen Solomon.
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Q&A: Playing Doctor
An interview with Patch Adams
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Why the time is right to celebrate female superheroes, by Lisa Bennett
The Postpartum Brain, by Anna J. Abramson
The Forgiveness Instinct, by Michael E. McCullough
How can scientists beam altruism into outer space? by Alex Dixon

And don't forget:

I'm hosting a conversation with video-game researcher Lawrence Kutner on May 6 at North Gate Library on the UC Berkeley campus.